Ashley Byam on Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank: Romeo and Juliet

Photo: Tristram Kenton

Shakespeare’s Globe’s Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank production, Romeo and Juliet is a gripping 90-minute production set in the present day, created especially for young people and designed to support the curriculum. The production will be directed by Director of Education, Lucy Cuthbertson, Director of Olivier award-nominated Midsummer Mechanicals.

The cast includes Hayden Mampasi as Romeo, Felixe Forde as Juliet and Ashley Byam as Mercutio. We caught up with Byam to find out more about what it’s like to be taking to the Globe’s iconic stage.

Q&A with Ashley Byam

What can you tell us about this production of Romeo and Juliet?

This production of Romeo and Juliet is very fast-paced, moving, hard-hitting and incredibly relevant for a 2024 audience. It is set in the current year and could be anywhere in the UK. Although Shakespearean, the characters are relatable and recognisable, which is what Shakespeare does very well, so it wasn’t hard to make it current without changing the language or removing the essence of the play; it also speaks to the social climate a lot of young people currently find themselves in. Lucy (director), along with Kevin (fight director) and Asha (movement director), have made a viscerally and visually engaging production with epic fights and dances. It will leave you on the edge of your seat and wanting more.

What’s it like to prepare to tread the boards of the Globe?

It’s a very nerve-wracking but also humbling experience. It feels full circle that I get to perform in one of my favourite plays on such a world-renowned and historic stage; I did Romeo’s “Tis torture…” speech to get into drama school. There’s so much history and great talent here that there’s a level of calm that washes over you when you first step out onto the stage, as well as awe and wonder. The 12 star signs on the roof are incredible. We also have the best cast and stage management team, so I feel very safe and supported on stage.

Photo: Tristram Kenton

How have you approached playing Mercutio?

Mercutio is a part I’ve always wanted to play, so once I got over the initial disbelief I was finally playing him, I made sure not to watch anyone else’s version of playing him, especially the Queen Mab speech. He’s a notoriously enigmatic and demanding role to play, so I spent a lot of time creating a back story for him from what is given to us in Shakespeare’s words and then filled in the blanks using my own creative licence: honouring the world Shakespeare created but also the world we were building within that. I want Mercutio to be recognisable but also somewhat inspiring to any student who may relate to what Mercutio is feeling and going through in the play, especially regarding his sexuality. I’ve had a lot of fun creating my version of Mercutio; he is a physically engaging, humorous and exciting role.

You’ve previously performed in another production of Romeo & Juliet – what is it like to approach the play from the viewpoint of a different character?

It’s been really fun to approach the play from the viewpoint of a different character; as much as I know the world from doing it before, it feels like I’m discovering it brand new for the first time. I’m learning different things and piecing together elements of the story I hadn’t really considered or noticed before, especially playing the part of Mercutio, and noticing all the “what if” moments and how different the play could be if the characters, especially Mercutio, made different decisions. I also learnt about different relationships between characters and had to explore them in a different way from the first time I did the play. Also, the two productions are very different, so that has helped; it’s also surprising how many of the lines I still remember, so learning the lines hasn’t been hard!

Photo: Tristram Kenton

How does performing on stage compare to your work for television and film?

I love performing on stage and have missed it greatly; as cliche as that sounds, I always used to see myself as a theatre actor, then my career went on a different path, and I was cast in film and TV roles first when I graduated from drama school. For me, there are similarities with all three in relation to the amount of work you put into character preparation – that doesn’t change, but screen work requires a different set of skills to the theatre. On screen, you don’t have to imagine too much of the world as it’s all created for you, whereas on stage, you have to dig a little deeper to develop certain elements of the world and use your imagination more.

Theatre also teaches you to be really present and adaptable, as no two audiences are the same, and you also want to keep your performance fresh – especially if you’re doing a long run. TV and film don’t give you the same instant reaction and response; you’re not in an active dialogue with the audience because it’s not live, and if you make a mistake, you can do it again and retake it – stage doesn’t allow you to do that, you have to think fast and work it out on the spot without letting the audience know. But if you were to ask me which I prefer, I genuinely couldn’t answer that as it changes constantly. I love acting, whether on stage or in front of a camera for film and TV. They teach me and give me different things.

Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank: Romeo and Juliet is at the Globe Theatre until 13 April